My mind wanders onto “more powerful than a locomotive.” First by way of that lavishly opulent art deco interpretation of Superman in the Max Fleischer classic. Even today, decades on, that cartoon ideation of Superman can stand its own against the best stuff out there. But then, because it’s John Ficarra, because it’s MAD, I tilt back towards something I’d read just days before this interview—“Modern Hassles Superman would have to Face if He Really Returned,” written by Jacob Lambert and drawn by the gifted Hermann Mejia. It’s a piece that’s reprinted in the fairly substantial MAD Super Spectacular: Superman Man of Steel #1. A book which parodies the mega-hype around the impact of a hyper-recognizable intellectual property like Superman with the summer blockbuster schedule, even in its very tenuous, overloaded title.
It’s not hard to jump around the images of that specific piece. Just while we talk, I summon up that lucid, lurid image of Lois Lane and the work she’s had done to keep her in flirting form for Superman. Or, the raw frustration of veins bursting, not just in the Man of Steel’s forehead, but through his head and down his neck, when he learns that Luthor has identity-thieved him, yet again. But in the end I’m drawn back to that locomotive. Even through Mejia’s high-quality parody, there’s an emotional core there. The idea that somehow, Superman is simply indefatigable. That somehow, someway, there will always be a Superman.
And it’s that word that sticks, indefatigable. How does John do it? Why isn’t he tired by now? Where does he find the enthusiasm to care as much as he clearly does, where does he find the energy? In short, how does he sustain the passion?
John took the editorship of MAD in 1984 (then a co-editorship with Nick Meglin), or “ushered in hurriedly by a big guy with very little time and better places to be,” as John himself might say (as in fact, I recall him saying in an earlier interview, which one though, I couldn’t say). The big guy is a clear reference to Bill Gaines who had almost singlehandedly shepherded MAD as a media parody magazine (successfully, it must be said) through the rats’ warren of McCarthyist governmental oversight that was the Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency. The younger John, the John of 1984, was a John dedicated as much to learning the mechanics of producing MAD, as he was a John who rounded out the first generation of the satire magazine.
But Nick Meglin’s retirement in 1994 would see a shake-up that would not only leave John as sole editor, but have him build the next generation of MAD creators, the charmingly self-described “Usual Gang of Idiots,” and as well, readers. As we wind out way through talking about early summer movies like Baz Luhrman’s sublime the Great Gatsby or JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness, and about the reorientation of the media landscape, I get stuck a little on 1984. What was the zeitgeist of the day? It certainly ran as a prophetic year, an apocalyptic year, perhaps the year that Orwell would simply impact us all like some grandiose literary comet left over from the Second World War. The late Steve Jobs certainly exploited that in his ad campaign that named and shamed IBM as Big Brother.
But the actual sociocultural shift of 1984 wouldn’t really be guessed at until 2002 and the evolution of the cyberpunk genre that kicked off in Bill Gibson’s “Bigend Trilogy,” his most recent fiction offering that ended with the publication Zero History in 2010. The big reveal of Gibson’s trilogy that spanned the first decade of the new Millennium was that cyberpunk could be a tool for sociocultural analysis and commentary. “What if, the future really was now?”, Gibson seemed to offer as his prime interrogative. What if scifi could be set not even in the not-too-distant future, but in the present? It’s a grand drama with traces of the conversation I had with John Ficarra in the present day. Themes of an over-complex economy that shows no signs of slowing down.
In Zero History Gibson writes as an operatic finale to this grand drama of complexity, “‘I saw that an American cotton shirt that had cost twenty cents in 1935 will often be better made than almost anything you can buy, today. But if you recreate that shirt, and you might have to go to Japan to do that, you wind up with something that needs to retail for around three hundred dollars.’” It’s exactly that kind of evolving and perpetually upgrading economic complexity that Matt Ridley talks about in his most recent offering the Rational Optimist, when he mentions that no one person on earth can make even a pencil any longer. Because the economy is too complex for one person to know how to grow the trees and how to fell them and know how to mine the lead and know how build and operate the factory machines that produce new pencils, and… etcetera, etcetera.
John gets there by talking about an unforeseen and in many ways unforeseeable role he’s had to embrace over the past handful of years now—evolving MAD as a venue for satire and a regular paycheck for working satirists to a simultaneous staging area for satirists to kickstart a high-scale career and marketplace for other outlets to source talent. “I know we spoke about this in the past,” John says, “but Hermann Mejia is a gifted sculptor. He actually sculpted a parody chess set we did one issue. But I can’t get as much of him in the books as I’d like these days, because he’s working on producing fine art now.”
And yet, in this new media environment where the magazine itself needs to contend with ever-decreasing media cycles for the summer blockbusters, and one where the blog picks up a lot of the slack on the moment-to-moment news parodies, John’s focus is still almost exclusively on finding talent. As a segue, we begin talking about Doug Paszkiewicz’s “Blast Son of Krypton Dept.” story, “The True Origin of Superman” in which Jor-el must deal with a perpetually crying toddler and Lara is little more than ditzy set-dressing. “It’s dark,” John says, “really dark.” Then he continues, “Because we do (the pieces) chronologically for the most part, unless we have a layout problem and we have to pull something out of joint, we want the reader to see the progression in MAD as they read along. But when I say I want the next Don Martin, I don’t want somebody who is going to ape Don Martin, I’m looking for somebody who’s going to have their own unique fresh view that’s going to appeal to this generation of readers, in the same way that Don Martin did to the earlier generation. And I think we have successfully found people like that in some areas, and in others we haven’t. Hermann Mejia is an excellent example.”
Doug Paszkiewicz’s story haunts me as we continue to talk about Hermann Mejia, and the evolving media and satire landscape John has to contend with. But also, the evolutionary journey that John and his art director, Sam Viviano hope to take readers on with special editions like MAD Super Spectacular: Superman Man of Steel. I wonder out loud about the hype, and about how John must deal with the reduced media half-life of even the highest-grossing summer blockbusters.
“Well, we won’t do too much of the hype,” John says pensively, “because I think that comment has been made so much. You can’t really criticize the hype too much because in the end, everything is hyped to the Nth degree. So you know, years ago we used to do a movie satire, and we’d go, ‘So why did they do the sequel? Aww, to make money. Well yeah, ok.’ So we sorta had to make that comment. These days, everything is hyped, and you really can’t blame ‘em because it’s very tough to cut through the din of everybody’s hype. So we’ll go after, more or less, the movie itself. And just try to have fun with the movie. And y’know, either poke holes in the plot or just make Superman look ridiculous, which is what we generally do with every superhero character we get a hold of. So I don’t think the hype is the thing we’ll go after. Maybe if there’re some ridiculous tie-ins or something like that, I’d say, yeah ok. But actually, they’ve done some smart tie-ins. I don’t know if you’ve seen, but they have this website, how does Superman shave? And it was teamed-up with Gillette. And then when you go there, they have four different celebrities giving four different scenarios how they think the Man of Steel might shave. Then I heard another tie-in where you can win Superman’s powers. The powers are like, fly, so you’d win airline tickets someplace. And they linked up all his powers with tangible goods you could win. I thought those were some pretty interesting tie-ins, so hats off to Warner.”
And that’s when the magic happens, as it always happens in interviews with John. This time, it’s that word again, indefatigable. The idea that not just with MAD or with the Usual Gang or with John’s own stewardship of the magazine, but with the Man of Steel himself. That there’s some deeply-rooted, inexhaustible emotional core to the idea of Superman. That even through decades of parody, the idea of the Man of Steel is still “more powerful than” any locomotive, and will always shine through, however dimly. And maybe that’s why, no matter how strange it is to hear MAD’s resident Satirist-in-Chief decline to parody something, but not entirely unexpected.
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MAD Super Spectacular: Superman Man of Steel #1 drops June 11th. Only $4.99 (Cheap!, as they say.)